There is a long list of things you can’t do while poor.
Watch your checking account drop after a rental payment without anxiety. Decide you’re just too tired to cook tonight and want to grab takeout instead. One-stop-shopping, knowing there’s a better deal elsewhere. Make mistakes.
In a highly regressive state in a deeply inequitable country, the consequences of poverty range from inconvenient to immoral and can land people in serious legal trouble that someone with more money in the bank can skirt with a swish of a pen or an online payment.
One such example is tickets incurred while driving that, if not paid, can turn from a financial obligation to a crime. To combat this, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is partnering with the Legacy of Equality Leadership and Organizing (LELO) group to help those on the wrong end of “driving while poor.”
That’s the colloquial name for the third degree of Driving While License Suspended (DWLS 3), a misdemeanor that results from driving when your license has been suspended for relatively minor reasons such as not dealing with a ticket either by going to court or by paying the fine. These often result from people not having the means to pay the tickets or not having a stable address, meaning they may never know that they’re in trouble in the first place.
When City Attorney Pete Holmes took office in 2010, he decided to change the filing standards that his office used to reduce the number of DWLS 3 cases that necessitated action from the City Attorney’s Office. Part of that decision was simple logic — 4,000 such cases passed through the office of 15 attorneys in 2010 alone, said Assistant City Attorney Jenna Robert.
“By the next year, it was into the hundreds,” Robert said. “We drastically reduced the filing numbers, but still had some we did file.”
That is where LELO comes in.
The City Attorney’s Office works with LELO on what’s called “prefiling diversion.” That means that before the City Attorney’s Office actually files charges, the LELO team undergoes intense outreach to find people who are on the edge of falling into the criminal justice system and helps them put together a plan to rectify the situation, get them relicensed and legally on the road.
The program is critical because even having charges filed against you can impact future employment and housing opportunities, but people are forced to gamble against their future to get by in the present.
“We wanted to have an opportunity to not have that charge ever on your record,” Robert said. “It really does make a difference on things like job applications, housing applications, scholarship applications to be asked have you ever been charged with a crime and say no. That’s what prefiling diversion allows, to never be charged with a crime.”
LELO handles a portion of the hundreds of cases that the City ttorney would otherwise file. Director Martha Ramos and Guy Oron conduct extensive outreach to people on the verge of having charges filed. It’s more than just sending a letter — Ramos and Oron track people down through social media and other methods to get in touch and give them options.
Together, they create individual plans such as completing drug, mental health or alcohol programs or community service. Upon finishing of the program, participants will not face prosecution and the City Attorney’s Office won’t pursue criminal cases for the citations.
The hope is that the prefiling diversion program will lessen the racial disparities that exist among people charged with DWLS 3, a crime sometimes referred to as “driving while Black.”
Ramos and Robert both stress that the people who benefit from this program are not a public safety risk — those folks would likely face other charges. Instead, they are people who need a little help to get on the right side of a legal system that is weighted against people of color and low-income people.
“We really see these cases as an opportunity to provide support rather than sending them to the criminal justice system,” Robert said.
The city has been looking at options to deal with DWLS 3 cases for nearly 15 years. In 2003, city officials commissioned a report from the RAND Corporation to look at the impact of a law that impounded the vehicles of drivers charged with DWLS 3. That report struggled with data limitations, but generally found that it was difficult to detect a deterrent effect, meaning that it wasn’t clear that threatening to impound a person’s vehicle would prevent them from driving, particularly if the car wasn’t under their name.
The prefiling diversion program for DWLS 3 is new. Folks who have been issued a ticket by the Seattle Municipal Court for DWLS 3 since April 2018 may be eligible to participate.
The city has embraced prefiling for other kinds of crimes for years.
The city partnered with Choose 180 to work with young people between 18 and 24 who would otherwise be charged with crimes. Instead of going through the courts — passing through metal detectors, facing down a system stacked against people of color and those without means — young people can work with their peers and trained community members to get out of bad situations.
The approach comports with new science on the developing brain that shows that punitive measures don’t have the effect that people would hope for and instead can get young people stuck in a cycle of poverty and repeated contacts with the criminal justice system.
Since September 2017, the City Attorney’s Office and Choose 180 have diverted 175 young adults on 187 fileable cases through eight workshops, according to a recent community report.
Parties involved hope that the prefiling diversion for DWLS 3 will show similar success, but that’s not Ramos’ ultimate hope.
“I’d be glad if we didn’t have to do this work anymore,” Ramos said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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